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Recalibrating the Compass: a Conversation on Art & Environment with Simmons B. Buntin and Megan Kimble
Art, Science, & Observation: A Conversation on Art & Environment with Rafe Sagarin and Eric Magrane
As the second cross-post with Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, this Proximities features a conversation on art and environment with the UA Institute of the Environment’s Rafe Sagarin and Eric Magrane. The first was a conversation between Terrain.org editor-in-chief Simmons B. Buntin and assistant editor Megan Kimble.
What follows is a partial transcript of the wide-ranging conversation, as well as a video clip of the discussion. Read more of the conversation and see more video at Terrain.org.
Eric Magrane: Rafe, you write and speak about observation, most pointedly in your book Observation and Ecology, with Aníbal Pauchard. I’d like to discuss the way that observation interacts as a hinge between both science—and particularly environmental science—as a way of seeing and understanding the world, and art as a way of seeing.
Rafe Sagarin: Absolutely. Observation is at the core of so many things we do, especially art and science. It’s almost so much at the core of science that it’s forgotten how important it is. The primacy that observation has to everything that we know—we’ve almost gotten too clever by half and think we could skip that deep observational step. Of course, all artists implicitly understand that they need to be really good observers of the world first, before they can start translating those observations to something they can appreciate. Sometimes in science we drill down way too far too fast before we understand observationally the whole context of what we’re looking at.
Eric Magrane: It seems like there are intersections between where one starts, as well—whether one begins with a hypothesis or a question that will guide the way that you look at things. Or sometimes in artistic ways of engaging with the world, it doesn’t always begin from a specific question or a discrete category that one is already organizing the world in, right? It seems like the way that you speak about observation addresses this stepping back and being attentive to what is actually happening in the world rather than going in already saying—within this space, within this marine ecosystem, for example—I know exactly how I organize this world already. It upsets the way that we make knowledge and has openings for new ways of understanding the ordering of the world and trying different arrangements.
Rafe Sagarin: Exactly. There’s been a lot of shifting of this in science. The early naturalist-explorers were wide-open observers. Darwin didn’t go to the Galapagos with a hypothesis in mind about evolution. He observed and observed for years, even when he got back, and eventually came out with this hypothesis and looked back at the data to see how it fit. What happened especially in the second half of the 20th century is that science got really more and more pressure, to this day, to define itself by being able to ask a hypothesis and then test that hypothesis. In the way we’ve made that process more efficient, it’s almost like you need to know—in order to get funded for your science—exactly what your hypothesis is going to be beforehand. Otherwise, you’re accused of going on a fishing expedition when in reality you’re never going to come up with a good hypothesis until you’ve done a lot of observing as broadly as possible before you even think about what’s the most appropriate question here.